She didn't know anyone was watching. She didn't know he was watching. Alana Beard only wanted to get in a little one-on-one with the team manager, on the night before her first practice after missing four games with a dislocated right thumb. So in the dim light of Cameron Indoor Stadium -- with DUKE and UNC still lit up on the scoreboard from that week's Instant Classic men's matchup -- the freshman guard tried out her favorite move. With her nonshooting hand still in a cast, she crossed over to her right, head-faked, then leaned back and let it go with a flick of her left wrist, holding her follow-through while kicking her left leg for effect. Rip.
"Oooh!" A deep baritone boomed from across the gym. "Li'l Dawkins!"
Beard swiveled. Standing there, underneath his retired No. 24, was Johnny Dawkins himself.
Two important things happened to Duke basketball in 1982: Johnny Dawkins arrived in Durham and Alana Beard was born. Back then, Crazies was spelled with a little c and Krzyzewski was spelled all kinds of ways. Only two names -- Groat and Gminski -- hung from the Cameron rafters; no national championship banners had been raised. But Dawkins was a name all right, a draw for future stars like Tommy Amaker and Danny Ferry and Grant Hill. He was, it turned out, the cornerstone of the program as we know it today.
Now, nearly two decades later, it may be happening again. Once more the focus of attention is a smooth lefty with an infectious grin. Once more the Li'l Devil is a student of the game, good for 15 to 20 a night and shockingly polished for a player her age. Once more the newcomer has a name that Gail Goestenkors -- Coach G, as she's known around Durham -- can drop in living rooms nationwide. But can Alana Beard do for the Duke women what Johnny Dawkins did for the Duke men?
His long arms went everywhere at once, but he was oh-so-sturdy on his legs. He could play the 1 or 2, but he'd have the ball in the last minute either way, thanks. He was natural, fluid, smart. "He was a prodigy," says classmate Jay Bilas. "Like the 12-year-old who graduated college."
Johnny Dawkins was the best athlete on a team that had previously gotten by with a bunch of efficiency experts. (One local reporter said the Blue Devils looked like "Team Xerox.") He was a heralded guard in an unheralded national recruiting class -- a group that wasn't expected to provide the type of player who could turn around a program. But that's what Dawkins did. He and fellow freshmen Bilas, Mark Alarie and David Henderson carried Duke, a rarity in the pre-Fab era. "We thought we could be something special," Dawkins says.
The Devils struggled his first season, losing at home to Wagner (yes, Wagner) on their way to an 11-17 record. But by 1986 they were 37-3 and national runners-up, the program's first of eight Final Fours under Coach K. The four '86 grads -- Dawkins, Bilas, Alarie and Henderson -- are still the school's highest-scoring hoops class (and their 7,324 career points came before the arrival of the three-point arc). Looking back, it's clear: Dawkins changed everything.
Her long arms go everywhere at once, but she is oh-so-sturdy on her legs. She can play the 1 or the 2, but she'll have the ball in the last minute either way, thanks. She is natural, fluid, smart. "You watch her play," says Bilas, now an analyst with ESPN, "and you wonder where the ceiling is."
Alana Beard is the best athlete on a team that made it to the Final Four two years ago with a bunch of efficiency experts. (Coach G says her Devils used to look like "sorority girls.") This prodigy didn't pick up a basketball until 1994, but she hasn't put it down since. Beard got her 5'11" height from her mom, her intense focus from her dad. Leroy Beard decided when he was a kid that he wanted to drive a big rig, and for the past 25 years he has spent his weeks on the interstate and only his weekends at home in Frierson, La. Sometimes Alana went along for the ride -- to Colorado or Missouri or New Mexico -- sleeping in the passenger's seat and watching Dad unload barrels of oil. She saw him choose one thing, and one thing only. Her one thing would be basketball.
Beard barely made the varsity as a high school freshman; she could hardly dribble with her right hand. But boy, was she coachable. "It was unbelievable how much better she got year to year," says Southwood High coach Steve McDowell. Then as now, she spent nearly as much time practicing on her own as she did with the team. "It's like Bill Bradley says in his book Values of the Game," she explains. "When you're not practicing, someone else is." Beard's scoring average went from 5.8 ppg as a frosh to 14.3 as a soph to 25.9 as a junior. She finished her prep career as Louisiana's Miss Basketball, with nearly as many rings (four) as losses (six).
And UConn and Tennessee passed on her.
Geno Auriemma leans against a bureau in the UConn coaches' office, his head framed by six of his nine Big East championship trophies. The Huskies have just slapped Miami 81-45, but Auriemma scowls and shakes his head. "We were in Colorado Springs last summer, tryouts for the Junior World Championships," he says. "And she just made this unbelievable move -- another one." He is talking about Beard, of course. "At that point I just turned around, found [UConn assistant] Chris Dailey and [Tennessee assistant] Mickie DeMoss in the stands, and told them, 'You should both be fired.' "
Beard wanted to be a Lady Vol. She carefully filled out a questionnaire and sent it to Knoxville; her AAU coach sent a tape. But Alana never heard back. Meanwhile, the Huskies just assumed Beard didn't want to leave the South.
After Duke ended Chamique Holdsclaw's career in the '99 Elite Eight -- a game Beard watched with her mother at home -- Goestenkors attended the Deep South Classic in Birmingham for the first time. She went mainly to see California recruit Rometra Craig, but someone else caught her eye almost immediately. After watching for just a few minutes, Goestenkors took out her pen and wrote: "Beard -- best HS player I've seen." She meant ever.
Coach G figured a player like this already had her list of five. It was April of her junior season, and she was a 4.0 student. So Goestenkors called Beard herself as soon as she could. Alana listened, hung up and told her mom, "I don't think I want Duke in my house." Too far from home, she said. But then Marie Beard did something she rarely does -- she told her daughter what to do. "Keep Duke," she said. "Just keep that option open." So Alana visited the school ... and loved it. She committed the day after she got home.
Says Goestenkors: "It was too good to be true." Says Dailey: "I cringe every time I hear her name. At least Tennessee didn't get her." Says Pat Summitt: "We blew it. You pride yourself on not letting the best players fall through the cracks. But clearly this one did."
Now Beard is the best freshman in the nation, leading the 25-3 Devils with 16.8 ppg entering the ACC tourney. Though Goestenkors calls all-everything senior guard Georgia Schweitzer "our MVP" (she's averaging 13.5 ppg), it is Beard and her classmates who will determine how deep into March this Duke team can go. This time around, the role of Li'l Bilas will be played by the smooth-talking Craig, a 5'10" guard and daughter of former 49ers running back Roger Craig. The new Li'l Alarie is 6'4" wing Iciss Tillis, daughter of boxer James "Quick" Tillis. The three frosh combine for 33 ppg and are as tight as the Class of '86 was. (Beard and Craig are roommates; Tillis often crashes on their floor.) "Alana can't have an impact without other players," Auriemma says. "The other freshmen there make Duke a threat to win the national championship."
For a few years to come, no less. UConn, Tennessee and Notre Dame will all lose their best players after this season. Meanwhile, Coach G has already nabbed a pair of top-10 recruits: wing Monique Currie of Potomac, Md., and power forward Wynter Whitley of Atlanta. Currie committed in part because she wanted to play with Beard, Tillis and Craig. (Call her Li'l Amaker.) "This is a watershed recruiting class," Goestenkors says.
And that might be the most striking similarity between the Duke men of 1983 and the Duke women of 2001. "Duke had been to the Final Four before I got there," says Dawkins, now Coach K's top assistant and still the school's all-time leading scorer. "But that was the first time we maintained excellence."
Funny thing is, Beard came to Durham with little knowledge of Duke lore. "I know about some of the older players," she says innocently, "like Trajan Langdon." But quite honestly, she doesn't think she needs to know about what came before. "I'm here," she says, "to make a name for our own program."
Li'l Dynasty has a nice ring to it.
Eric Adelson is associate editor for ESPNMAG.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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